Covid sparks new debate over farmers’ unrest at Delhi borders, protesters say it won’t return

Should farmers cancel their protest at the Delhi borders and return home following a worrying second wave of Covid-19 hitting the nation’s capital? With at least one oxygen supply company complaining that its trucks are being forced to take longer routes to reach Delhi hospitals due to blockades at major border points, a debate has erupted over the morality of the protest which started at the end of November.

So far, the farmers have refused to budge, saying they have no plans to return to their villages and that “there is no corona” at the protest sites. They also rejected the blockage of the oxygen supply trucks.

“I wonder if the farmers have a commitment to India and their Indian compatriots. Will farmers be happy if people die in hospitals because the oxygen has been delayed? Where is the commitment of farmers? Meenakshi Lekhi, member of Parliament for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in New Delhi, told News18. “The court should issue an order to fire them since the second wave is raging. Ask a person whose father is waiting for oxygen in the hospital… ”Lekhi added.

Debate raged after government officials said a major oxygen supplier requested a “green corridor” for its trucks to Delhi, as those vehicles were scheduled to make a detour of nearly 100 km from the supplier unit in Uttar Pradesh due to a blockade at the Ghazipur border. A similar situation arose at the Singhu border during the transport of oxygen from Panipat to Delhi. When approached by News18, the provider did not officially comment.

‘Farmers should go back’

Besides roadblocks, a senior government official told News18, farmers themselves were at risk of contracting Covid-19 and their sit-in sites could become “super-spreaders.” The official said little social distancing or mask protocol was followed by farmers, and added that protesters continued to commute between Delhi and their villages in Punjab. “Look at the high number of Covid people in the Punjab – which may well have something to do with the farmers’ movement between Delhi and the Punjab,” the official said, an argument rejected by Congress.

Thousands of farmers, mostly from Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, have been protesting at the Delhi borders for nearly five months, demanding the repeal of three agricultural laws passed by parliament on last year. They say the laws will erode their bargaining power, weaken the mandi system and benefit businesses, even as the government rejects that argument. He says the laws will usher in much-needed reforms in agriculture and help farmers increase their incomes.

Several rounds of talks between the Center and 41 protesting farmers’ unions have stalled. The government offered concessions, including the suspension of laws for 18 months, which the unions rejected. They have been steadfast in their demand for the complete repeal of the laws. On January 12, the Supreme Court suspended implementation of the laws and asked a three-member committee to prepare a report after consulting all stakeholders. At the end of March, the committee submitted a report to the tribunal.

A senior BJP official pointed out that agricultural laws were pending in accordance with Supreme Court orders. “The government also proposed a longer suspension. Farmers can go back now and come back after about a year if they are still not convinced by the new laws, ”said the head of the BJP.

‘This is their call’

Congress said it was totally up to the farmers to suspend the protest in view of the second wave of Covid. “It’s up to them to decide… it’s totally their decision and their timing. I would say they have a responsibility to their life and their family, ”Sunil Jakhar, Punjab congressman and party leader, told News18. He firmly rejected the argument that the farmers’ protest was responsible for the high number of Covids in the Punjab. “There is no proof for this. Covid has mainly increased in urban centers in Punjab and has not been reflected in rural areas, while farmers have only commuted between their villages and Delhi to a certain extent, ”explained Jakhar.

He said the central government had lost all credibility on the Covid front with the BJP throwing “caution to the wind” in its election rallies. “The Center has lost moral authority because it must first put into practice what it preaches. No one believes their warnings about Covid when they themselves continue to rally, ”Jakhar told News18.

He said the health ministry should instead send an “apolitical team” to educate farmers about the “real and current threat of Covid”, but added that the claim that oxygen supplies would be blocked due to the protests was a “garbage can” and floated in the media to discredit the protesters.

“ No crown here ”

The chief farmer leader and president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), Balbir Singh Rajewal, said the farmers would not cancel their protest, suspend it and return. “There is no Covid at all on the protest sites. We don’t even have a single case. So all this talk of ‘we have to go back’ is a big plot against the peasant movement, and we know that once we go back to Punjab, the government will never allow us to go back to Delhi. So we’re not going anywhere, ”Rajewal told News18.

The farm chief said protesters did not stop any trucks with oxygen supplies, and added that police were dealing with blockade sites and were refusing vehicles. “There are many roads and highways to Delhi, in addition to the ones we blocked at Singhu and Ghazipur. Some other roads have been dug up and barricaded by the police themselves, ”Rajewal said.

He also referred to the measures farmers had taken against Covid-19, such as “observing precautions, wearing masks, using disinfectants and setting up a 10-bed hospital in Singhu with a team of doctors in case an infection is reported ”.

“There is no wreath here (on protest sites) and even if it emerges, we do not depend on the government to fight it,” Rajewal said.

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